Madly in Love

Lucia di Lammermoor’s “mad scene” is one of the most famous moments in all of opera—and with good reason. It is a musical and emotional roller coaster, filled with fake blood, bizarre hallucinations, and stunning coloratura. Mad scenes (and the extraordinary displays of virtuosity they engender) have always been popular in opera. So what makes Lucia’s madness so memorable?

In one of the first operas ever written, Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607), the Greek musician Orpheus goes mad with grief after his wife, Eurydice, is bitten by a snake and dies. L’Orfeo predates Lucia di Lammermoor by more than two centuries, yet the basic musical and dramatic elements of the mad scene were already evident in Monteverdi’s work. Sharp contrasts of speed and volume mimicked unpredictable mood swings, agitated music in the orchestra represented the hero’s turbulent mental state, and the death of a beloved (or love otherwise denied) would become the main catalyst for a character’s breakdown. (Note that the “mad” in “mad scenes” always refers to insanity, never anger.) Operatic styles would evolve over time, yet these fundamental traits of the mad scene remained the same.

For Donizetti, however, Lucia’s mad scene called for much more than the standard compositional tricks that were generally used in operas. His first innovation was to bring back a melody from the opera’s Act I love duet, in which Lucia and Edgardo promise always to be faithful to one another. During the Act III mad scene, the orchestra plays this love theme as Lucia, crazed with grief, fantasizes that she is marrying Edgardo. By the end of the 19th century, the reprise of musical motifs would be common in opera, but in 1835, when Donizetti wrote Lucia di Lammermoor, it was a notable choice. Moreover, the libretto makes clear that no one besides Lucia can hear the “celestial sound” of the duet’s melody, so the recurring melody is like an auditory hallucination.

Donizetti’s second major innovation was the use of the “glass harmonica,” an instrument based on the same acoustic principle as “playing” a wine glass. If you dip your finger in water and rub it around the rim of a crystal goblet, an eerie, ethereal sound will result. (The instrument as it is usually encountered today was invented in 1761 by Benjamin Franklin, who lined up a series of concave glass discs on a spinning rod to stand in for the finicky goblets.) The glass harmonica gave Lucia’s mad scene a spooky, supernatural atmosphere, yet Donizetti’s use of the instrument was likely based on more than just its ghostly timbre. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was generally believed that glass harmonicas had a physiological effect on listeners. The Viennese doctor Anton Mesmer (from whose name we get the word “mesmerize”) claimed that the glass harmonica’s sound could cure illness. Other doctors believed that the instrument’s vibrations could drive listeners—and especially women—crazy. It was thus the perfect instrument for Donizetti’s delirious Lucia. Unfortunately, the musician scheduled to play the glass harmonica at Lucia di Lammermoor’s 1835 premiere quit a few days before the first performance, and Donizetti had to call in a flutist to play the lines. Today, opera companies can choose whether they want to use the flute or the glass harmonica to bring Lucia’s mad scene to life.

Active Exploration
Make your own glass harmonica: Begin by finding one or more wine glasses made from glass or crystal (crystal will work better). Add a little bit of water to the glass, and then dip your finger in the water and rub it along the rim of the glass. Vary the pressure and speed until you hear a clear, ringing sound. Once you get comfortable playing the wine glass, try changing the amount of water in the bowl of the goblet: Does the pitch get higher or lower when you add more water?